The Hidden Gem: Discovering the Jewish Heritage of Malta and its History
My trip started with an amazing flight on Turkish Airlines, my new number one airline from this day forward. Flying business class with Turkish Airlines was a real treat for me, as they provided us with all the amenities I could wish for; making the trip very comfortable. Time just flew by! Turkish Airlines has one of the best in-flight entertainments, as well as food and beverage services for all classes. It’s no surprise that the airline has won numerous awards. I strongly recommend this outstanding airline and look forward to flying with them again.
One thing that I must recommend, if you have a 4 hours layover in Istanbul while flying with Turkish Airlines, is to use the Turkish Airline Business Lounge.The Business Lounge is amazing (please note that you have to be in Business Class to have access). But I can truly say that its worth the upgrade just to experience it! It is worth every minute of it! It is spread out over two big floors and consists of pure comfort, and offers an extremely friendly, contemporary design. The food is nothing short of incredible and caters to all different tastes. The lounge offers a huge array of activities, such as playing pool, watching TV, which offers channels in all languages and provides individual headphones, visiting the theatre, practicing your golf in a simulator, getting a free massage, taking a shower in a spacious bathroom, trying a range of Turkish delicacies and flavorful teas, playing the piano – the list is endless! I would go out of my way to have a layover in Istanbul, just to go back there. It is an absolute paradise for travelers.
I finally arrived at the exotic Island of Malta; staying at the most exquisite Hotel on the Island: The Corinthia Palace Hotel & Spa. This hotel is roughly located in the middle of the Island, away from the party scene, and offering a peaceful stay with a very friendly, amazing staff who seem genuinely pleased to welcome their visitors upon arrival. The service was excellent from check-in to check-out. The entire staff, from reception to spa, bars & restaurants, couldn’t have done more to meet my needs. The bedrooms were sumptuous with lots of space, containing huge, comfortable beds, leading out onto a lovely balcony and overlooking the beautiful gardens. The hotel provides free, high-quality Wi-Fi throughout its entire premise. Breakfast was excellent with a wide array of cold and hot dishes. Particularly good was the selection of freshly cut fruit, the frequently replenished poached eggs, and the variety of Maltese breads and pastries. The honeycomb was culinary heaven….very different and much lighter than many heavily processed honeys you can get at home. Delicious. It certainly got me off to a good start every day.
Many thanks go to Chef Hogan, the Executive Chef of the Corinthia Palace Hotel & Spa, and his team for the beautiful “light dinner”, served with amazing cheeses, fish, a variety of fresh salads and Maltese breads. It was “a tease of some wonderful flavors that we would be experiencing in Malta”.On a personal note, Chef Stefan Hogan cooked for the Queen of England last year!
The exploration of Malta and Gozo was led by Mr. Damon Allen from Exclusively Malta, a destination marketing company that provides authentic and exclusive experiences of the Island, as well as a unique Malta program infused with Jewish History that dates back from the Roman Period to the present. They did not disappoint by providing the best tours of Malta and its Jewish Heritage history. http://exclusivelymalta.com/
The main Island of Malta is 316 square kilometers, scattered with small cities everywhere, and the street are made of cobblestone. The total population of the islands is 450,000, including about 150 Jews, most of who are living on the main island, and make up one of the smallest active Jewish communities in the Mediterranean basin.
The Island of Comino, almost uninhabited today, but famous for the Blue Lagoon, has Jewish roots. Comino is where the well-known Jewish Mystic Avraham Abulafia lived from the year 1285 on until his death in the 1290s. He was a kabbalist from Zaragoza. Abraham Abulafia was a Spanish mystic and founder of practical Kabbala. A strange character, he dreamed of forging a unification of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. In fact, he tried to convert Pope Nicholas III to his ideas. He was about to be burned at the stake, but with the Pope’s sudden death, he was spared, and later on sighted in Sicily, followed by Camino, where he claimed to be a prophet and the Messiah.
He wrote his book Sefer ha Ot or “Book of the Sign” in 1288, and his most intelligent work, Imre Shefer, also known as “Words of Beauty”, in approximately 1291. He supposedly died here, but there are no indications on where he is buried.
The newest addition to the Maltese Jewish Community is an old man known by all as “The Admor”. He claims to be a direct, and personal descendent of the hermit kabbalist of Malta.
The Peace and Quiet: Island of Gozo
Gozo Island is the most charming destination of the Maltese Islands. With its quaint pastoral landscape, quiet towns, and pristine beaches, this little island is the perfect place to enjoy a relaxing vacation while discovering cultural attractions. Gozo is the best choice for beachside relaxation, snorkeling, scuba diving, and nature hikes. Unfortunately, there are no Jews living in Gozo today .
The Island of Gozo is accessible by ferry from Cirkewwa, on the Island of Malta, and only a 25-minute crossing. We were given the OK to use the salt pans of Xwenji near Marsalform. The traditional way of making salt in Gozo is still kept alive through the use of these pans. The rocks are very soft and white, and have been formed by the elements into spectacular shapes, which make a beautiful contrast with the crystal clear, blue water. It’s very scenic, to say the least.
“The New Window” is a beautiful place, with great photo ops. PLEASE do not ignore this place, now that the window has fallen. Sadly the sea reclaimed the Azure Window. Fungus Rock, the Chimney Hole and the Inland Sea are also really special. We explored the coast by taking a boat ride out into the caves and near where the Azure Window was, going from an inland lake through a tunnel, which lead out to the sea. It was simply amazing to sit in a little boat among the long row of cliffs and beautiful geology. The area is still well worth a visit, to see the inland sea with its cave entrance and the fossils in the bedrock, as well as the stunning scenery and the old Fort on the hill.
Our last stop before lunch was The Ggantija Temples. Considered as one of the most important archaeological sites on the Maltese islands, they are certified as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. This temple gives you a good picture of the layout of the megalithic temples and its excellent interpretation area, and will help you understand the other sites as well, such as Hagir Qim. To know the fact that they were built more than a 1,000 years before the pyramids is truly astounding. They are about 5,500 years old. It dates back to around 5000BC, and is one of the oldest, if not the oldest, free standing building in the world. It’s even older than Stonehenge. The highlight for me was seeing a Black Whip Snake, appearing right in front of me. That being said, the Temples give you absolutely stunning views over Gozo.
For lunch, I would strongly recommend the restaurant Vini e Caprici, where I got to experience a wonderful culinary taste of the food of Gozo. This is a must-visit and you should book your next lunch or dinner here, if you are in the area. The list goes on: Best ice cream, cheese, eggplant, and so on and so on… Start with a Maltese platter for an assortment of bread, olives, bigilla (beans), sun dried tomatoes and my favorite Ftira Ghawdxija bread (Gozitan ftira), which resembles a pizza. This flat bread and the traditional Maltese loaf are kosher.
My last experience of the day was at the Citadel of Gozo. The Citadel is a spectacular piece of history. Like Mdina, it is a fortress with a cathedral in it. I learned that, unlike Malta, Jews primarily lived outside the walls in so-called “Rabat”. However, there could have been a community within the walls that was used as a place for shelter and for selling goods, as the sign indicated. Not only does the history and culture enthrall you, the views from the top are simply stunning, and show the whole of the island. Walking on the walls of the citadel, including the fake dome ceiling in the church, is well worth a visit.
Our final stop for the day was going to Ghajan Tuffieha (The Apple’s Eye). It is another must-visit in Malta and a perfect place to watch the sunset. A truly magical place for hikers; the view from the top of the hills is majestic, full of life, and vibrant. Go and enjoy this calm and beautiful beach.
The next day we traveled to the Temple of Hagar Qim and Mnajdra. Another UNESCO-listed megalithic site, the prehistoric Hagar Qim Temples are located on Malta’s south coast in a commanding position on a rocky plateau, overlooking the Mediterranean Sea and the Island of Filfla. Dating from 3600 BC to 3200 BC, this ancient site was buried under mounds of earth until it was discovered in 1839. The facade, made up of two upright stones supporting one stone lintel, has a striking entrance.
It is an amazing site, with two temple complexes, both very well preserved under canopies, to provide shade. They are on a hill, each 500m apart. Many of the smaller objects found at the site are now at the archaeology museum in Valetta. It was incredible to witness these timeless structures and learn about their mystery and importance. Walking amongst the monolithic stones sent me right back to the times of their creation. This is definitely a stop worth visiting for any history geek, or anyone who just enjoys beautiful vistas and impressive formations. The views over Filfla are spectacular.
Finally, We arrived at the site of the Verdala Palace at Buskett Gardens. Buskett Gardens was created to be a hunting lodge for the Grand Master, where they would import animals to be eventually hunted. It is the summer residence of the President of Malta and was originally built in the 16th Century. During the French blockade of 1798–1800, the palace served as a military prison for French soldiers, who were captured by the Maltese or British military, and surprisingly enough, they played checkers here!
Then we went on to Spinola Bay, located in St.Julian, for lunch at the incredible L’Chaim at the Chabad Center to meet Rabbi Chaim Shalom. We were received with a warm welcome. Delicious, fresh food was served to us in a clean and tastefully decorated restaurant with tables overlooking the sea and palm trees. It is centrally located, and with a very courteous staff. The restaurant holds a small synagogue and books in several languages. For all those who keep kosher, this place makes a visit to Malta much more comfortable, since it’s possible to eat both breakfast and dinner there. The restaurant offers Shabbat meals for a modest price and is even open on Passover. I was amazed by how good the kosher food in Malta could be- it really exceeded all my expectations. I highly recommend the baked fish all the dishes in this wonderful restaurant.
Please note that Air Malta will be starting scheduled services between Malta and Tel Aviv on April 21, 2017, flying three flights a week during the summer. This will increase the number of visitors to Israel, including Jerusalem and the Holy Land, and also the number of Israelis visiting Malta, which has an average of 30,000 annually.
Then we were off to Marsaxlokk, a picturesque fishing village that is filled with beautiful boats called Luzzis – fishing boats painted in shades of dark blue, rose, yellow, and red, with the necessary evil eye always present on the prow (it is said to protect the fisherman at sea). The village also has a local market and very nice eateries. The enormous fresh fish market shows you the variety of fish that can still be caught in the Mediterranean Sea. Sit along the water and watch the boats of Marsaxlokk. It’s really picturesque.
There are three Jewish cemeteries in Malta:
1- The Jewish cemetery in Marsa, established in 1879, at the southern tip of the Grand Harbor, is the only Jewish cemetery in Malta that is still in use. Decorations resembling Torah finials top the gabled, arched stone gate, where we were greeted by Mr. Reuben Ohayon, who is the acting Rabbi of the Jewish Community of Malta, as well as a the spiritual leader of the community (Shaliah tzibur). He also purifies (tahara) the dead for burial. He has various other important functions, such as being a member of the World Congress, and European Jewish Congress, among others.
His family was originally from Morocco. When both Muslims and Jews were expelled from Spain in 1492, most crossed over the Mediterranean to settle in Morocco. Rueben’s grandfather, Rabbi Nissim Ohayon, was born in Morocco, but his children were born in Portugal. Abraham Hayim Ohayon, Reuben’s father, was elected President of the Jewish Community in 1994, after the death of George Tayar.
He shared information about his family as well as others that are buried at Marsa cemetery, such as the Tayars, Ebers, Reginianos, and other influential Jewish families.
Marsa Jewish Cemetery contains one Commonwealth burial of World War One, and two from World War Two. On the gravestones, you can read names from Poland, Spain, Russia, Hungary and other European countries, but you also can read about Jews from Australia and Shanghai.
2-The Ta’ Braxia cemetery was established in 1834 and used until 1880. It is adjacent to Valletta’s main Ta’ Braxia International Cemetery, laying on the road from Floriana to Pieta. At least one-quarter of the cemetery’s 120 graves are of infants and children. The cemetery underwent a clean-up in 2016, and the grave inscriptions are being transcribed and studied.
3-The Jewish Cemetery in Kalkara, established in 1784, is the earliest surviving Jewish burial ground in Malta, aside from the Rabat catacombs.
The Next stop was the Matriarch of Jewish culture in Malta. Shelley Tayar’s story is quite amazing and it was our first visit of the day to Villa Tayara in the area of Kappara, San Gwann. Shelley is a well- known persona in Malta, in part because of her husband, George Tayar, who was a direct descendent of the first Rabbi of Malta, Josef Tajar. Josef emigrated to Malta in 1846 from Tripoli. The family took up residence at 155 Strada Reale, Valletta, where the synagogue was located. In 1851, he became their full- time Rabbi and was responsible for the school, which was teaching Jewish children. Shelley shared some background information about the Jewish History in Malta, as well as personal stories, including the famous chocolate event during World War II, when her husband and poet Dun Karm shared a shelter.
Then, at the olive grove, we met Jeanette, Christian’s wife. They run a farm and artisanal co-operative to better safeguard the heritage of Malta. Our lunch included paced tastings of local sheep’s cheese, real olive oil, and an authentic Ftira (a type of kosher bread). The views were stunning, the weather was perfect, and the hospitality exceptional. We finished off our lunch with some fresh strawberries, honey ring sweets, and the traditional Maltese coffee. It was a truly fantastic experience.
We departed the area to arrive in the village square of Rabat – the suburb of Mdina at the St Paul’s Catacombs.
The Jewish catacombs form part of the larger St. Paul’s catacombs complex in Rabat, and were discovered at the end of the 19th century. They date back to the late Roman period some 1,500 years ago, and are unique, because they are Jewish catacombs within a Christian complex.
Before you enter the catacombs, you can see a small video about the history and read some interesting facts. Once inside, we received the okay to get a good overview of the construction of these tombs, and the furniture that was placed in them, as well as the crying vases that were found. This area contains many tombs – some even undiscovered to this day. Walking down the aisle within the main entrance of the catacombs, we found a couple of unique features: the agape table and head rests. The agape table (agape stands for love) was a festive table used to celebrate the dead. The headrests can be seen throughout the site. Walking along, we arrived at the site where the Jewish catacombs are. Catacombs numbers 10, 12, 13 and 14 were the highlights, because they shared views of menorahs, and even boats. Number 13 was the best of all, because it showed a menorah within the tomb that represented the joining of two people.
We also heard about a heated controversy over the bones. The Jewish community in Malta demanded that the human bones found inside the catacombs were given a proper burial, according to the Jewish rites, and should be handled by the Jewish community. A solution of burying them in the Marsa cemetery was finally reached.
Our journey’s next stop was the Medieval Hilltop Town of Mdina: I was told about the silent city, but it was still very fascinating, containing lots of side alleys leading to interesting squares, and with the appearance of a very well-kept town. Walking around in a place like this, with its lavish history of more than 4000 years, cultural and religious treasures, housing of noble family palazzos, really takes one back in time. It has fabulous museums, gorgeous tea shops, fantastic food, quaint streets to stroll along, unique shops to pursue, and above all, breathtaking views.
As you’ve heard several times now, Jews in this area lived within the walls, side by side with Christians. There was a quarter (not a ghetto), where most of the activity happened in, including the site of the synagogue, the silk market, and many more. We learned that Jews had a good, and not so good, life at the same time. They were known as slaves of the crown – they were essentially ensured protection and in some cases favoritism in exchange for their support – mostly in the form of money. They wore red pieces of cloth to ensure people knew they were Jews and the men even had to shave their beards. Since they supplied the oil for the lamps marking the safeguarded areas within Mdina, they were often exempt from guard duty.
At the village of Ta’ Xbiex, the apartment complex, where the synagogue is located at, is named Florida Mansions. There is absolutely no signage, except for a mezuzah at the entrance. Once inside the synagogue, we had a quick tour. The men’s section was long and thin with the ark at one end, having The Ten Commandments inscribed in gold on a marble plaque above the Ark, and the Bimah at the center. The gold-embroidered blue velvet Ark cover was donated to the community in 1946, in memory of the two brothers Alfonso and Menashe Reginiano, one of whom was killed by a bomb during World War II. The men’s chairs were located on either long side of the room, facing the center. The women’s section was in the back, separated by a curtain. The room used for the Kiddush was off to the side, decorated with children’s pictures and drawings of Hanukkah and other important holidays.
The service started at about 10 a.m. and followed the Ashkenazi (European) ritual, even containing some beautiful Sephardic melodies, though the majority of Maltese Jews originally lived in North Africa, Spain, Gilbratar, England and Portugal. After the Torah service, they said a prayer for the government of Malta, just as Jews in every land pray for the well-being of their government. Then they said a prayer for the members of the Israel Defense Forces. The service was very beautiful and touching.
After the service, we gathered in the function room for the Kiddush blessing, held over wine and bread, for the Motzi, which was performed by Reuben’s father there – Abraham Ohayon, the President of the Jewish Community. Joining them were Reuben’s brothers Albert and Israel, as well as other guests. Reuben’s father shared his memories of the war and told us about how very little they had to eat and produce during the Passover holidays.
Jews visiting Malta over Shabbat should take advantage of the opportunity to visit the synagogue and meet this warm community.
The timing was perfect when we set off for Valletta. Valletta, an old town, including the waterfront, is a must-see in Malta. It is surrounded by beautiful old buildings and terraced gardens are lining the waterfront. While in Valletta, we visited the most spectacular feat of high Baroque design in St. John’s Co-Cathedral. Built by the knights of St. John, as their mother church, it includes chapels dedicated to the different languages of the order, marble tombstone laid out floors, a spectacular altar, and the side museum, which is dedicated to the artist Caravaggio. It’s pretty remarkable for a museum.
The walled city of Valletta is small in comparison to other world capitals. But the city, designed on a grid system, is made to be walked upon, discovered and to be enjoyed. Light and energy bounce off the Maltese limestone on the buildings that line the streets, with charming window box balconies jetting out from the facades.
I found beauty in something rather unusual: Door knockers, known as “il-Habbata” – these adornments come in many motifs, shapes and sizes. My favorites were the variations on lions, though I did see dolphins, hands, and Maltese crosses.
Renzo Piano’s gorgeous parliament: World-renowned architect Renzo Piano recently redesigned the entrance to Valletta, including a beautiful new parliament that looks even lovelier at night. The area is terrific! A mix of very modern architecture in an ancient city. It is absolutely stunning. Well worth seeing by walking around.
We had lunch at Nenu – The Artisan Baker. I ordered the Ftira bread (there are so many different styles – and not all Kosher!), potatoes, various types of vegetables, and fish. The Maltese Bread is amazing! So much pride is taken in the way bread is made here, and it really shows (or rather tastes like it too!). It’s served with different kinds of dips and oils, and you’ll find it is some of the very best in the world.
Our second to last stop of the day was at the Upper Barrakka Gardens. We arrived just in time for the 4pm firing (using blanks) of the cannon, across the Grand Harbour, that used to signal that it was time to call it a day. This is the best spot where one can admire the natural Malta Grand Harbour. From here you can also have a good glimpse of the 3 old cities, which are: Vittoriosa (Birgu) ,Cospicua (Bormla), and Senglea (L-Isla). There are colonnades with commemorative plaques marking major events and the countries that helped Malta during its wars. We noticed the Albert Einstein commemoration (a loose Jewish connection) that was put there by the Albert Einstein Society.
A last, quick stop was to get a bird’s eye view of the Jews’ Sally Port. This was the location, where “free” Jews had to enter when visiting Valletta. It might be interesting to note that there is actually a bar located here called Jews’ Sally Port, and its has an orthodox logo.
In the village of Birgu (one of the three cities), we walked past the village square to find Jewry Street, which was actually the Old Governor’s Palace Street. This side street was named in commemoration for the previously named street.
Wherever you go, you feel history all around you
You don’t have to go to museums in Malta, because this is a place where you’ll feel as if you are walking through living history. You will find everything you need: Super clean water and an abundance of things to explore below sea level, if you are looking for an amazing scuba diving experience. Another thing you should do is to walk along the promenade in Sliema, where people are having their drinks as the sun goes down. Nothing beats this experience and you will be surrounded by the friendliest people in the world. You’ll never feel more welcomed anywhere in the world, and yes, watch the sunset, of course! The sunset is a magnificent sight, no matter where you see it, but in Malta – over the azure waters and against the yellow of the limestone – this daily event rises to a new level of bliss.
On top of everything else, you have Exclusively Malta, the company I mentioned earlier, to show you the best of the best in Malta, and its Jewish Heritage. This welcoming, English-speaking island is a must- see destination for every traveler.
Story & photography by Meyer Harroch – New York Jewish Travel Guide & New York Jewish Guide
For more information, visit:
To plan a trip to Malta, contact the Malta Tourism or log on to: www.visitmalta.com
For more information on Malta programs infused with the Jewish Heritage Experience, visit
Fly Turkish Airlines: www.turkishairlines.com
The Corinthia Palace Hotel & Spa. Malta: http://www.corinthia.com/en/hotels/palace-hotel-and-spa